Mini-Review: Ghost in the Sheet / S.C.A.R.E.

(Official web site)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

I wandered lonely as a cloud through the wasteland that is Gamestop. But what? A title I've never seen? Published by neither Adventure Company nor Got Game? Startling.

Ghost in the Sheet is an indie effort from two Czech designers calling themselves Cardboard Box Entertainment. The package promises "paranormal comedy", and the game kicks that off in fair style: you are hit by a truck. Your eternal reward turns out to be a grouchy demonic boss, who wraps your ghost in a traditional white sheet and dumps you back on Earth to investigate goings-on at a run-down factory.

This is a good angle on the limitations of the traditional adventure interface -- you can't touch or move most objects because you're a ghost. And it doesn't get frustrating, because you gain supernatural abilities as the game proceeds. You start out able to move small objects. (But not carry them around; no inventory here. And yes, the need to transport objects between rooms figures into several puzzles.) As the plot proceeds, you learn new tricks, which lean toward the thematically appropriate: a ghostly glow, a sudden draft.

The interface is an old-style first-person slideshow, although it has picked up the trick (more familiar in third-person games) of putting subtitles on each cursor hotspot to let you know what the object is. The factory environment is solidly rendered; it's not overwhelming, but there are enough touches of animation to bring the place to, as it were, life. And while this is not generally a horror game (you are, after all, already dead) it has a few well-placed corners of genuine creepiness. You also get occasional cut scenes -- rather spare ones, done in static, monochrome, hand-drawn illustrations. These would have benefitted from a more expressive style, but they get the point across.

On the positive side, you get plenty of dialogue: both narrative voiceover and interaction with the other characters, who form a lively -- er, active part of the game. The ambient sound and musical score also hold up their respective ends of the bargain.

The gameplay is decent, though not brilliant. The early puzzles are not too difficult. Eventually you reach bits that are -- more difficult, but due to design flaws rather than complexity or cleverness. One puzzle (in a locker room) was probably a good idea on paper, but falls apart in the chaos of the rendered world. I actually thought of the correct solution, and then decided it didn't make enough physical sense to be worth trying.

Other scenes are predicated on discovering certain clues, which meant that my play session hung up because I had failed to click on a particular sheet of paper (of dozens scattered around the ruined factory). This problem is hard to avoid in mystery games, but the upshot is that you can get stuck with no practical recourse but a walkthrough.

On top of that, the game has a fairly broad design. You encounter lots of puzzles, lots of items, and lots of clues, only a few of which are relevant at any given moment. I appreciate that in an adventure, but it's hard on the player when he encounters puzzle problems. Where do you proceed? This is where the palette of abilities hurts you: you are tempted to methodically search the game, trying every ability on every object you encounter. (And, indeed, I spent a lot of time doing this.) This is, counterintuitively, less interesting gameplay than the Myst-style one-verb click-to-use-it interface.

This is not to say I had a bad time. I figured lots of stuff out, I solved most of the puzzles on my own, and the ability palette was fun when I was in the game's groove. All of the puzzles were relevant to the story and integral to the environment. The many NPCs were not used as an excuse for unending fetch quests. Plus, as the game website explicitly promises: no mazes and no slider puzzles. It's good to know some designers are paying attention.

The biggest flaw of the game -- at least, of the English version -- is the translation job. The title is a case in point. "Ghost in the Sheet" is a running gag in the story: your boss calls you that, you call yourself that, various characters are variously surprised or disgusted to encounter a "ghost in the sheet". But the gag isn't funny. The phrase is a lousy nickname; it's not short, it's not euphonious, it's not fun to say, and it doesn't sound like anything. (Except an anime movie, which doesn't turn out to be relevant.) I mean, if everybody called you "Casper", that would be a gag, right? Not a particularly good one, but it would fit. "Ghost in the sheet" just sits there.

(If anyone knows the Czech original of that phrase, I'd be interested to know it. I bet it's funnier. The English title Ghost in the Sheet seems to be used even in Czech references, although the game is coming out as S.C.A.R.E. in Europe.)

The whole script is like that. It's grammatical, but it's awkward in phrasing and emphasis. (And this hurts the puzzle clues as much as the comedy.) It's like, well, like reading a foreign language, only in English: you have to translate each line into what it really means. The English voice actors work like hell to make it sound natural, but they can only do so much.

Summary: Look past the lousy translation for an entertaining adventure game. The puzzles are patchy, but they're original and well-integrated; the graphics aren't stunning, but the story is nicely put together.

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